Bridging the gulf
Younger Cuban-Americans challenge hard-liners' approach, reach out to island.
By Maya Bell
Sentinel Staff Writer
MIAMI -- Elizabeth Cerejido felt like an outcast growing up among other Cuban exiles in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood.
The 34-year-old museum curator never related to the pro-embargo diatribes that drove flag-waving protesters into the streets.
"The intolerance that permeated the political climate for so long robbed my generation of the opportunity to form our own opinions," she said.
Cerejido is among a growing number of Cuban-Americans who reject the hard-line perspective that has dominated Cuban policy in Miami and Washington for more than four decades. She and other younger Cuban-Americans are joining more-recent arrivals and former hard-liners who have undergone changes of heart in moderating the political dialogue in Miami.
Forty-five years after Fidel Castro came to power, new Cubans are slowly replacing the aging old guard, infusing la lucha -- the struggle for a free Cuba -- with new voices that span the political spectrum. Many are intent on building bridges to the island, rather than erecting walls around it.
Many reject the Bush administration's recent initiative to strangle the Castro regime by further restricting visits and cash assistance to island relatives. And many regard the budding internal opposition in Cuba as the new agent of change. The transition is subtle, nuanced and contradictory but heralds a day when Floridians, in a post-Castro world, could reap the benefits of renewed relations with one of their clos? est neighbors. The shift also could weaken the Republican Party's magnetic hold over Cuban-American voters.
"We're moving from the politics of passion to the politics of affection," said Damian Fernandez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. "In this sense, geography is destiny. We're already seeing the emergence of a transnational community developing here."
Isolation and confrontation are losing favor as the only strategy for bringing democratic reform to the island. Intolerance is fading -- as is the fear of expressing opposing views.
And while support remains overwhelming for the trade embargo imposed during the Kennedy administration, dialogue, reconciliation, negotiation -- even forgiveness -- are now part of the daily lexicon.
"There's not only a changing public opinion, but a changing political environment," said Sergio Bendixen, the nation's leading pollster of Hispanic public opinion. "There used to be only one answer: getting rid of Castro. Words like dialogue or negotiation basically suggested you were a communist or a traitor. Those days are gone."
Experts and observers cite a handful of contributors as complex as the estimated 900,000 Cubans who live in Florida. They include the continual influx of émigrés, the ongoing economic crisis on the island, the birth of an internal opposition there and the fallout over a little boy named Elián Gonzalez.
"And, of course, frustration," FIU's Fernandez said. "After 45 years, we're willing to try anything."
The politics of affection
Christian Alfonso's father was jailed for fighting against Castro's government; his mother for filling his 8-year-old brother's head with ideas of leaving Cuba. She was behind bars when her eldest son, then 19, jumped on a boat and headed for Florida, joining the 1980 Mariel boatlift, which brought more than 125,000 Cubans to South Florida.
Now 43 and a bank vice president in downtown Miami, Alfonso loathes Castro and his totalitarian regime as much as any exile. On the island, he endured the weight of repression, never knowing which "friend" would betray him for his growing disillusionment.
Alfonso seems like the perfect recruit to the hard-line position, but he rejects the sanctions that define U.S.-Cuba relations. He is the new face of the Cuban exile -- members of the post-Mariel generation who, by their sheer numbers, are transforming the community.
Today, nearly three of five Cuban natives in South Florida came in the 1980s, 1990s or the first four years of this decade. Thousands continue to arrive every year under the immigration accord struck in 1994, when the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted 40,000 Cubans at sea.
In many ways they differ markedly from the first wave of Cubans who left in the '60s and '70s.
Like Alfonso, most are children of the revolution. They are not imbued with the nostalgia for a pre-Castro Cuba that defines Miami. They never knew it.
Many, especially those who came after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union ended the generous subsidies that sustained the Cuban economy, consider themselves more economic than political refugees. They return to the island as often as they can, or send money to help relatives survive the rations and shortages that are hallmarks of daily life. The amount is substantial. One estimate tops $1?billion a year, but whatever the number, it is Cuba's largest source of net income -- responsible, hard-liners say, for sustaining the totalitarian regime.
Yet Alfonso has no qualms about sending money to his grandmother. A registered Democrat, he describes the Bush administration's initiative to curtail the dollars that exiles pump into Cuba's coffers as "absurd, ridiculous, inhuman." The new rules, slated to take effect June?30, allow Cubans living in the United States to visit relatives on the island once every three years, rather than annually. And they permit them to visit or send cash remittances only to their nuclear families, exempting cousins, aunts and uncles.
"How could it be? It's my family and my money," said Alfonso, who plans to vote for presidential candidate John Kerry, the presumed Democratic nominee.
He is not alone. A poll released last week by Bendixen & Associates shows the Massachusetts senator has a commanding lead over Bush among Cubans who arrived after 1980 or were born in the United States. But hard-line stalwarts such as U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, aren't worried. As he notes, voters overwhelmingly chose to send his brother, Mario, to Congress over a Cuban-American challenger who advocated easing sanctions against Cuba. "We have elections every two years, and that's the poll that I know is true," Diaz-Balart said.
The future, however, may hold a different truth. Unlike Alfonso, the majority of newcomers do not vote. Many are not yet citizens. Over time, analysts say, the political picture is shifting.
"The population is dominated by post-Mariel Cubans, but the electorate is dominated by pre-Mariel Cubans," said Philip Schmidt of the Latin America Working Group, a foreign-policy coalition that promotes human rights and justice. "That drives the politics and dynamics in Miami -- for now."
'Barbarians at the gate'
On the eve of Pope John Paul II's 1998 visit to Cuba, Miami businessman Carlos Saladrigas savored victory. He had orchestrated the exile community's opposition to a Miami-to-Havana religious pilgrimage aboard a cruise ship, dooming the voyage.
Today, the chairman of Premier American Bank calls his triumph a mistake.
"In hindsight, I see it as a missed opportunity," he said. "I think the cruise should have happened."
Lately, Saladrigas, 55, has reversed a lot of his thinking about the homeland he left at age 12.
Once a self-described hard-liner, he now chairs a group of wealthy Cuban-American businessmen seeking what he calls more reasoned, less emotional policies. Once a proponent of isolating the island, he now supports purposeful contact with the Cuban people.
He sums up his metamorphosis with one word: Elián.
He watched the exile community's reputation dissolve as it fought to keep the 5-year-old boy rescued at sea in 1999 from being returned to his father in Cuba. He knew it was time for a new approach.
"We realized Castro had been successful as portraying us as monolithic, vengeful -- almost as barbarians at the gate. Elián made us pause and think about what we do in a more rational and analytic way," he said. "The politics of passion are changing to the politics of reason."
Now, the lifelong Republican calls the move to tighten travel restrictions and cash remittances a "profound mistake."
"How can we restrict family contact?" he said. "It's politically wrong and unethical. I didn't always believe that, but the older you get, the wiser."
The new protagonists
Not long ago, when congressmen planned trips to Cuba, the Cuban American National Foundation begged them not to go. Now, foundation officials send them with a guide to Cuba's budding civil society, as well as admonitions to deliver pencils, paper, books and other tools of dissent.
They want the world to know -- and support -- the growing number of human-rights activists and independent journalists and librarians who are fighting for openings in the tightly controlled communist state.
The foundation, which Jorge Mas Canosa built into the world's largest and most formidable exile lobby, has undergone its own transformation since Mas died in 1997, losing its most stalwart hard-liners. It is now led by two men who have never set foot on the island. The chairman is Mas' eldest son, Jorge Mas Santos, and the executive director is Joe García. Both are barely past 40.
Neither is shy about supporting dialogue with Cuban officials or embracing island dissidents who oppose the one tool the foundation has spent two decades strengthening: the embargo.
As García says, different times call for different battles, and the battle has shifted. The debate is no longer in Washington or Miami. It's in Cuba.
"Twenty years ago, there was no opposition in Cuba. Cuban-Americans were the protagonists in the struggle for liberty," García said. "But today there is a groundswell, so the role of protagonist is no longer ours. Our job is to ask: 'What do you need? How can we help?'?"
The answer often comes in packets of dried milk, packed in the cardboard boxes the foundation sends to the families of jailed dissidents.
¡Yo si voy!
The yellow-and-black bumper stickers proclaimed the driver's refusal ? to return to Cuba. "¡Yo no voy! ¡Yo no voy! ¡Yo no voy!" -- I will not go! I will not go! I will not go!
An artist and assistant curator at FIU's Frost Museum, Cerejido remembers their omnipresence. So does Jose Puig. The Coral Gables lawyer never pasted one on his car but identified with the phrase.
Yet today, Cerejido and Puig, 38, are part of the ¡Yo si voy! -- the I will go! -- generation. They have made personal journeys to the forbidden place that provided the background music to their lives.
They've gone to Cuba on their own and with the organization Puentes Cubanos, or Cuban Bridges. Founded by Miamian Silvia Wilhelm, Puentes pairs young Cuban-American professionals here with counterparts there for a week of intense talks. No one leaves with dry eyes or without new friends.
"What was so revealing to me was how critical they were of the government but committed to the country," Cerejido said. "They weren't desperate to get out. They were desperate for change."
Like most children of exile, Cerejido and Puig share the burden of family loss.
A doctor, Puig's grandfather was president of the island's sugar landowners. In Miami, he was relegated to peddling potato peelers door to door. When Puig returned from his last Cuba trip, his mother wouldn't talk to him.
Cerejido was separated from her father during her first 11 years. Jailed in Cuba, he didn't join his wife and daughter in Miami until 1980. But Cerejido never really knew him until he died in 2001. That's when she discovered the letters he had written her mother during their decade apart.
"I never saw that side of him," she said. "By the time he came, he was a broken, damaged man."
In Cuba, Puig and Cerejido learned that their island contemporaries grew up shrouded with their own pain: relatives who left. Friends lost at sea. They also learned that no matter how wide the chasm separating their governments, Cubans on both sides feel inextricably bound. They came home convinced the future lies in tearing down the walls.
"It's been 45 years," Puig said. "Get past the hate. Get past the anger. Let's move on to another way."
Maya Bell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 305-810-5003.